Over Your Duty Free Limit! What Happens Next?

For spirited wonks, one of the great joys of travel is seeking out new and exotic bottled treasures and returning home with them in tow. It’s the thrill of the hunt – what will you find? Maybe it’s a bottle you never knew existed? Or perhaps it’s one you’ve stalked for years. For U.S. citizens, the three-tier system makes it royal pain to find treasures at your local stores. So hunting for liquor during your domestic and international travels can be highly rewarding. But what about that pesky “duty free limit” people talk about?

When it comes to bringing liquor back into the U.S. from international jaunts, the biggest source of fear and confusion is duty, aka the duty free exemption, aka the duty free limit. Generally speaking, U.S. residents can return to the U.S. with one liter of spirits, duty free. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) site says this:

Generally, one liter of alcohol per person may be entered into the U.S. duty-free by travelers who are 21 or older, although travelers coming from the U.S. Virgin Islands or other Caribbean countries are entitled to more.

Sounds simple, right? Yet you’d be amazed how many people think this means you can only bring in one liter of alcohol. Or worse, just one bottle. Not true!

The CBP site addresses this scenario, but without preparing you for what you’re in when you show up at their desk with a dozen bottles in your suitcases:

Additional quantities may be entered, although they will be subject to duty and Federal excise taxes, which will be assessed and collected at the port of entry.

There is no federal limit on the amount of alcohol a traveler may import into the U.S. for personal use… A general rule of thumb is that 1 case of alcohol is a personal use quantity

What this realistically means is that for international travel, you’re generally safe to back as much liquor as fits in your suitcase(s). Mrs. Wonk and I have tested this on numerous occasions. At this point, we consider it a personal failure if we don’t arrive home with at least sixteen bottles in our two carry-on sized checked suitcases. We’ve always filled out the forms truthfully (so as to not put our Global Entry status at risk), and had never paid a single penny in U.S. import duty.

Until this past weekend’s trip to Vancouver, BC. They got us. We paid import duty.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably very interested how this went down? Is it on our permanent record?  Are we labeled in some computer system as international booze hounds?

Let’s set the stage a bit: Normally our international travels are via air, but on this trip we drove from Vancouver, B.C. home to Seattle, crossing the border at Peace Arch, near Blaine, Washington. Packed in our bags were six bottles of liquor, including three Cuban rums. We had also stopped at the duty-free shop just before the border crossing (so convenient for all your booze and perfume needs!) and found some bargains, bringing our trip total to nine bottles.

Of course, we were well aware of the one liter per person duty-free limit for bringing spirits into the U.S. after you’ve been out of the country for 48 hours or longer. We had at least tripled that quantity.

It was a calculated risk. Maybe they wouldn’t ask if we were bringing in liquor, like most of our returns flights home.  Maybe they would—as a CBP agent did following the prior year’s arrival home from Scotland—chuckle at our thirteen liters and say, “Sounds like a good time.  Welcome home!” before waving us past the desk.

But back to how it went down…

Arriving at the Peace Arch checkpoint, at least six cars are ahead of us in each lane. The CBP agents have the drug-sniffing dogs out in force, checking each car, so I have plenty of time to ponder what I’ll say if the CBP officer asks me questions.

Finally I pull up to the booth, and after the standard “Where are you coming from?” and “Where are you going?” inquiries, the agent asks “Are you bringing any alcohol into the country?” Fibbing isn’t an option, as Mrs. Wonk and I treasure our Global Entry status, and we surelydon’t want to risk losing that by giving false information to a federal officer.

As always in such situations, I don’t volunteer information, but tell the truth if asked.

“About five liters of spirits,” I say. A reasonable guess, as I’d not done a complete inventory and accounting. Based on prior experience and what others have said, that five liters is small enough potatoes to not make it worth the CBP’s time.

“As you may know, the duty-free limit after 48 hours is one liter per person. You’re three liters over,” the agent says.  “Turn on your flashers and pull into that lane over there. Then go into the building for an additional inspection.” 

With that, he takes an orange card, scrawls “IRT x 3” on it, and sticks it on our windshield. Oh no! The orange placard of shame! (I subsequently learned that IRT is “Internal Revenue Tax”; I assume the “x 3” meant “3 liters.”)

After parking our car in the border limbo parking lot, we enter the two-story CBP building. The first floor resembles a DMV office: A long row of booths, at which sit six or so uniformed agents, looking sufficiently intimidating if you might have done something wrong.

At the end of the row is an agent at a cashier booth. Ahead of us in line are a handful of people who seem to be there for immigration and documentation issues. Within minutes, any hope of quickly paying our duty on three excess liters of spirit vanish in a bureaucratic haze. The agents are in no hurry, and everybody ahead of us in line is sent to go sit and wait. And wait…

The Hall of Interminable Waits. Peace Arch border crossing.
The Hall of Interminable Waits. Peace Arch border crossing.

A half-hour later it’s finally our turn. I briefly entertain the idea that he’ll see the “IRT x 3” on our card and direct us to the cashier. Ha! SOOO not happening.

“When did you leave the country?” he asks. “Uh… about 4 PM on Friday,” I reply. Why does that matter? After more questions, he asks for my car keys—yikes!– and tells us to take a seat.

We can’t see our car from where we’re seated. I know we have a few shopping bags in the back seat, and three tote bags in the trunk filled with clothes and liquor bottles, carefully wrapped. How long can it take to look through that and ascertain that I don’t have a 53 gallon cask of whiskey in the trunk? Or blood diamonds?  Or a trunk full of ivory?

The answer: A very long time. At least another half hour. What on earth is he doing out there?

Finally, he returns and summons us to the desk. “Well, you have 6.25 liters of liquor in your car,” he begins. “I should actually increase that because one of the bottles is 51 percent ABV rather than the usual 40 percent ABV.” 

It’s very clear he’s gone through every bag thoroughly, found every bottle, and noted down its size and ABV. At least we know why it took so long!

“Did you know it’s legal to bring Cuban rum into the country?” he asks. “Oh, yes,” I reply, maybe a little too excited about the recent change of policy.

“The Cuban bottles were exceptionally well wrapped, and at the very bottom of the bag.” he says.  “I wondered if you were trying to hide them.”

“I write about spirits,” I reply, “so I was very much aware it’s now legal. I just like to protect my bottles.” That seemed a satisfactory answer.

Wrapping up the tedious government paperwork pokey, he mentioned that we hadn’t been out of the country for 48 hours, but since we’d spent two nights away, he’d count it as 48 hours. As you might not know, the one liter/person limit is after 48 hours, so that was kind of him.

Furthermore, it seems that a lot of people buy two 750ml bottles, likely a few hundred meters previously at the duty free store. While they’re technically on the hook for the duty on half a liter, it’s simply not worth the time to collect it. So the effective duty-free limit (at least at Peace Arch) is around two liters per person. Obviously this isn’t official U.S. Government policy, but it works out in your favor, so count your small blessings.

When all was said and done, we had 6.25 liters of alcohol, of which the agents counted four liters as duty free. Thus, we owed duty on 2.25 liters of alcohol. The agent jotted that down on our orange card and sent us down to the cashier.

Now then, here’s the humorous part, if you can call it that:

It’s damn near impossible to find the actual, effective duty rate in U.S. government schedules. I’ve found the documents and parsed them carefully, spending several hours hunting for a simple, easy to understand rate per liter. Technically, the duty rate is based on a “proof liter” which is 50 percent ABV. However, many spirits are closer to 40 percent ABV, so less duty is owed on them for the same quantity.

As best I can decipher is (and I’m not a lawyer), the general rule of thumb, is to assume $2.85 per liter of 40 proof alcohol. On a 750ml bottle, that’s approximately $2.13.

So, in the case of our 2.25 liters of alcohol, we owed…wait for it…


Yes, that’s all we owed. After waiting for over an hour and having our car (carefully) rifled through, the U.S. government claimed $6.40 from us. We were happy to pay. And yes, they take credit cards.

Over my duty free limit. I owe $6.40.
Over the duty free limit. Pay up!

So, what about paying duty at airports? We subsequently learned about that experience too.

Returning internationally by way of Atlanta, a CBP agent asked if we were bringing in liquor. Again the correct answer was “Yes.” I indicated it was about thirteen liters, which got us sent to a special line.

At that point, we had only our carry-ons with us, as this was before baggage claim. We were handed off to at least four different agents who walked us through a labyrinth of passages and waited while they retrieved our bags.

Eventually we arrived at a special CBP room deep within the airport. At the desk we explained for the fifth time that we had thirteen liters of spirits, and were happy to pay duty.

The agent asked a series of questions about the bottle count, bottle capacities, and alcoholic strength. His brow furrowed at my answers, presumably because it wouldn’t be a quick, easy calculation of my proof liters.

“Welcome home. Pass on out through those doors there.” he finally said.

Even at the exact moment where the U.S. government could charges us duty, it’s sometimes not worth their effort.

The moral of the story: If you bring lots of liquor back into the country, you may have to pay duty. More often than not you won’t, but be prepared for the possibility that you’ll be inspected. Even then, you may not have to pay, such as mentioned above, or when I returned Jamaica with six liters of rum in a single carry-on. I was flagged for inspection, but my bag was never opened. I simply told the inspecting agent that I write about rum and had six liters in my bag. He laughed and waved me through.

Even if you do end up paying, the amount of duty owed on a healthy haul (say, twelve to twenty-four bottles) should be less than $30. Of course, if you’re bringing back that much liquor, it’s hopefully the expensive, good stuff and not a case of $10 vodkas. Paying $30 or so is a negligible fraction of what you spent on your bounty.

Also, it’s important to be aware that some states have stricter requirements on what you’re allowed to bring in. Flying into those states and getting flagged for inspection may just cost you even more, or they may disallow over a certain limit. For instance, Texas currently disallows over one gallon of distilled spirits. You may luck out, but be prepared if you’re not so lucky.

The biggest cost to consider is your time. If you get flagged for inspection, how long will you wait? Is the potential for an hour (or more) wait worth the bottles you’re bringing back? Hopefully so! So either bring back under the duty-free limit, or go big. If CBP is going to give you an extra dose of attention, make sure your haul is worth it!

A final disclaimer: I’ve been focused on the duty owed per liter, which is based on quantity of alcohol, regardless of purchase price. You’re also subject to the personal exemption value limits; typically, $800 per person, or $1,600 for a couple. If you happen to bring back a $22,000 bottle of exceedingly rare cognac, your duty will obviously be higher. But that shouldn’t be a problem for a baller like you.

For reasonably priced bottles in the $50 to $150 range on average, it would be a challenge to bring back more than $1,600 worth of liquor in a couple of suitcases.

So there you have it! The duty free exemption is confusing and scary if you’re never dealt with it. But having gone through the inspection process and paid the duty, it’s not particularly onerous once you know how the process works. So get out there, travel, and bring home the good stuff, fellow wonks!

8 thoughts on “Over Your Duty Free Limit! What Happens Next?

  1. I think it varies by what state you re-enter the country from. When we were coming back from Mexico on a group trip, those going through Arizona were at risk of losing their excess as opposed to us going through Texas were at risk of getting taxed. Going through Dallas, I was honest, and they told me that they could give me a hard time, but said that it was close enough (I think I was around 2 liters).

  2. This explains why several customs agents seemed to be unhappy when I declared extra bottles. The correct declaration seems to be 1 bottle.

  3. When I come back from Scotland my bags are jingling. Always nothing to declare. Always
    I will look the bastards in they eye and say it. It is easy, it is none of their business therefor I have nothing to declare.

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